Terry Conner built a culture of client satisfaction at Haynes Boone Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2010

As a young lawyer, Terry Conner was simply trying to do the best job he possibly could and keep his nose clean, but as he saw Haynes and Boone LLP grow, he started to notice more of the nuances of the firm.

“In 1970, we had just a handful of lawyers, but to see how the firm was able to grow and have good lawyers and good clients in a market that was originally dominated by much larger firms, ... helped reinforce the cultural tenets. So probably by the time I was becoming a partner in the early ’80s, I understood the power of the client focus,” Conner says. At the 1,100-emplyoee law firm, success has come as a result of a relentless and singular cultural focus — focusing on the client.

“Culture is very, very key, and it’s very relevant to our people but also to our clients,” says the managing partner. “It’s not something that can be contrived or invented. It really has to be part of the fabric of the company or the firm. Ours is the product of 40 years of consistency and a culture emphasis.”

Conner says in order for Haynes and Boone to maintain its success and cultural focus, it’s critical to hire quality people who will fit with the culture and then continue to drive it.

“It’s not something that happens overnight,” Conner says. “It’s something that is built over time. We were fortunate that our founders began to create this culture 40 years ago, and it needs [to be] constantly reinforced and discussed.”

Hire quality people

One of the keys for Conner is to make sure that he brings in people who are going to enhance the client-centric culture and not overpower it.

He looks for people who can thrive in a team environment and also think entrepreneurially. That’s a tall order, but he says you can look at their experience to get an idea.

“You look at their background and things that they have done, and you ask questions,” he says. “Is this someone who has done things a little bit different? Who has spent time overseas? Who has helped in a community effort? Who has taken the ball and run with it in an organization? These are all indicators of someone who can be entrepreneurial and help you come up with new ways of doing things.”

For example, he recalls one job candidate who had lived in China for a while between undergraduate and law school. He had taken the time to learn the language and the culture, and that experience told Conner that he understood the global business environment and was willing to take the time to learn about such things in order to be more effective.

You also want to ask the right questions to get to the heart of that person.

“We don’t try to ask trick questions, but you ask questions that can’t be answered with a yes or no,” he says. “In other words, you want someone to talk about what they consider to be important, what they think their strengths are and how they think they can contribute to the organization. Those are things that give someone an opportunity to really express who they are and what’s important.”

He says it’s also important to hire people who will truly focus on your customers or clients.

“Is this someone who really takes to heart the importance of serving great clients?” he says. “The most successful lawyers in our firm are those that have gotten to know our clients, our clients’ business and our clients’ industries. Someone who has really vested that time and attention into clients is someone we really look to.”

Again, it’s important to ask the right questions to find out if they’re truly focused on customers.

“What you do is you talk about how the client relationship is developed,” Conner says. “If someone’s client is ABC, say, ‘Sally, tell us about how you got to know ABC, how your work has developed, how you got to know the executives at the company. Talk about what the challenges are for that company and how that practice has been aligned with the client’s goals in order to help the client achieve what the client wants to achieve.’

“Talk about particular client relationships and how they have developed over time, and you get a good sense to know if someone has that long-term relationship.”

He also looks for people who don’t only do what the job description requires.

“You’re looking for someone who has shown a consistent ability and willingness to go above and beyond,” he says.

For example, he looks for lawyers who have been active in speaking engagements or writing scholarly articles and for people who have been active in their communities.

Lastly, he wants someone who can work effectively on a team and also enjoys a collaborative environment.

“Ask questions about it,” he says. “When you’re going out to develop business or to work on a project, how often have you involved other team members in the firm?’”

This is central to how the firm operates. You can never be completely sure that you’ve hired someone who will be perfect, but by taking these steps and then seeing how they operate in real situations, you’ll quickly learn if they’re a team player.

“Seeing how someone responds under pressure is always a (really) good test for how well they work in a teamwork environment,” he says.

Focus on clients

With the right people, the firm can have a total focus on clients.

Conner creates teams of lawyers for each client so nobody can say a client is his and that he alone handles that client.

“The starting point for almost everything we do, when we’re doing it right, is what’s in the best interest of the client,” he says.

“Build teams and create teams for client service.”

For example, if a client has a project involving an investment operation in Mexico, he would want a team of lawyers with skill sets to help that problem — lawyers from both the U.S. and Mexico and those specializing in financial issues and any other practices related to the issue.

Once you can get people thinking in terms of a team, it becomes easier to actually focus on your customers.

“You learn a lot from clients from working with them on projects,” he says. “I think it goes beyond just the project. You need to invest time in the client relationship, and that includes spending time that’s not going to be billable to learn about the client’s business and learning about their industry — sitting down and talking to them about their goals, talking about the challenges they face.”

For example, Conner may sit down with a customer knowing that government regulations in his industry are changing, and he may ask that customer how he sees that affecting his business, what kinds of issues he thinks it will present and how that may change his legal needs going forward.

You also want to make sure you don’t dominate a client meeting by talking about only what you can do for his or her company.

“It’s talking first about their goals,” he says. “So many professional service firms want to come in and talk about what they do, but what we do has value only from the standpoint of what’s important to the clients, (what are) the clients’ goals, what are they trying to achieve strategically, what are some of the issues they feel like they’re going to encounter the next couple of years and how will changes in the global economy affect their marketplace?”

In addition to these, he says it’s also important to ask clients about topics that they typically may be intimidated to bring up, such as billing.

“We’re glad to talk about it,” Conner says. “Tell us what’s important from your standpoint about how billing is managed. Those are the questions to really start to assess what’s important to the client.”

In addition to talking to the client directly, you also want to gather information about the client’s industry yourself.

“It’s one thing to be able to identify what has already affected the client, but what we’re trying to do by focusing on business intelligence is really understand the changes that are coming,” he says. “That can be for a client, it can be for an industry, it can be for a practice. As you develop a good picture of how those changes — economic, political, legislative — are going to affect your clients, then you can begin to build a valid strategy that takes that into account.”

For example, he says it’s important for his team to understand how the expansion of international work between Asia and the United States and also between the United States and Latin America will develop over the next few years. He says many companies will be involved in or affected by these initiatives, so by having his team members well-versed on the topic, they can serve as an additional resource and help foresee issues clients may have surrounding these efforts.

Making such a strong focus on client service has helped the firm over the past few decades, but it has also helped it excel within the industry even in recent years, having been named as a finalist for the Dallas Business Journal’s Best Places to Work competition.

“The focus on clients as opposed to a focus on how much money have you made for me today is very liberating,” Conner says. “It’s something that our personnel can relate to, and it’s a higher mission than simply how much money did you make this quarter.”

But money hasn’t been an issue, as the firm generated $306.5 million in gross revenue last year.

“Obviously we’re in business, and we’re conservatively managed, and we have a strong balance sheet and do well financially, but I think our personnel really appreciate and respond to the fact that we put the interest of the client first and emphasize the teamwork culture and not just how much money have we made today,” he says. “It helps us to recruit, and it helps us to retain outstanding personnel, and I think also it’s in the best interest of the client, so it’s a kind of symbiotic relationship between culture and client focus.”

How to reach: Haynes and Boone LLP, (214) 651-5000 or www.haynesboone.com